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Cobell: Museum's process, pick flawed

There are two major reasons why Indian country should be troubled by the appointment of Kevin Gover, a former Interior Department official with no museum experience, to head the National Museum of the American Indian.

The first goes to the very heart of the selection process, which excluded and disdained input from Native Americans. The second addresses the flawed record of the person selected by that process. Together they make clear why the Smithsonian Institution has created a serious affront to thousands of Indians.

As a member of the museum's board of trustees, I was shocked that the board was never consulted. In fact, Mr. Gover's name had never been mentioned during our board discussions about the directorship.

When I was named to the board of trustees, I was told the trustees had been selected because we were leaders in Indian country. The Smithsonian said it wanted to know what Native people sought in ''their museum.''

But what happened here was nothing more than a continuation of the same pattern of insider deals by the Smithsonian Institution's top administrators that have brought this wonderful institution into disrepute. This appointment has tarnished our wonderful new museum's reputation as one of the jewels of Indian country.

When members of the search committee asked Smithsonian officials if Mr. Gover's name should be brought before the full board, they were told, ''No, this is a confidential matter.''

Confidential? This is the very attitude that smacks of cronyism and backroom deals. That's what has tarnished the Smithsonian's reputation. High salaries and sweetheart executive deals made in secret have soured Congress and the public about an institution that is a national treasure.

You would think that when it came to selecting a new director for the museum the least the Smithsonian could have done would be to have run his name by the board. There is no need to rush. We have known for a year that we would need a new director.

We trustees take our work seriously. We are extremely proud of the museum. We want it to succeed. But we are not an exhibit, there only for show.

We are not ''wooden Indians.''

By bypassing the trustees, the Smithsonian executives who had selected Mr. Gover were thumbing their noses at the representatives of Indian country. Our opinions - and those of Native people - did not matter.

As for Mr. Gover, I think there is a lot to discuss when it comes to his ability to run a museum. I am confident the Smithsonian knew full well he would be a highly controversial choice.

As assistant secretary of Interior for Indian Affairs, he was held in civil contempt of court in the class action lawsuit I and others filed over the government's admitted mishandling of 500,000 Individual Indian Trust accounts.

This was not, as Mr. Gover has claimed, a simple administrative mistake. He and others withheld needed trust documents from the court for 26 months and then misled the court about what they had done.

As U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth declared: ''The federal government here did not just stub its toe ... I have never seen more egregious misconduct by the federal government.''

The government did not appeal the judge's ruling and paid the $600,000 civil fine imposed by the court.

What did Mr. Gover do to deserve this? Listen to his own words:

''Well, we screwed up,'' he told ''The Diane Rehm Show'' on Aug. 30, 2000.

As assistant secretary, Mr. Gover said he had direct responsibility for the people who were supposed to get the needed trust records. ''I did not keep enough track on what our lawyers and our staff were doing to comply with the judge's order,'' he told the National Public Radio show.

''I did ask from time to time. I accepted inadequate information and the judge was right that we failed to comply with that order.''

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Mr. Gover acknowledged the job of getting the records was ''a major undertaking, but we screwed up.''

He was held in civil contempt by Judge Lamberth on Feb. 22, 1999, along with his boss, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

What angered the judge was the undisputed evidence that the Interior Department was at war with itself for months over whether or not to comply with court orders to produce records about the trust accounts of the named plaintiffs in the case.

Gover was in a key management position. He should have known of the problem and at least alerted the court. But the judge found that Babbitt and Gover were responsible for the failure to comply with his orders.

Their inactions delayed the entire trust case for more than two years, the judge said, noting, ''Justice delayed is justice denied.'' The victims of this delay, the judge said, are the beneficiaries of the Indian Trust.

Many are, as the judge has noted repeatedly, some of the poorest people in the nation, often dependent on trust payments for their income.

In recent days, Mr. Gover has made much of the fact that he issued a very public mea culpa at the time and later when he left Interior.

What he does not mention is that he also said he didn't like the idea of individual government officials being held personally accountable for performing their public duties. ''You know,'' he said on ''The Diane Rehm Show'', ''if that were the test and federal officials could end up in jail, not for criminal conduct but for the failures of the agency, you're never going to get anybody working for the government,'' he said.

The idea of strong public oversight, such as Judge Lamberth exercised in his 10 years overseeing our case, does not sit well with Mr. Gover either. ''I mean, there's such a thing as too much oversight, and if we spend most of our time responding to overseers as opposed to doing the work, then it becomes destructive,'' Gover said. He added he didn't think the trust case had reached that point.

But in an interview with Indian Country Today published Aug. 30, 2000, Mr. Gover seemed to espouse a different tune. Speaking of the Cobell plaintiffs, he bragged, ''We whipped them.'' He claimed victory because Judge Lamberth had declined to place the Indian trust into receivership and Congress had continued to fund Interior's slow efforts to restore trust records.

He alleged that all the Cobell plaintiffs want to do is ''do everything in their power to prevent us from succeeding.''

''They are dangerous and while I do give them credit for creating the pressure that was necessary for trust reform, I think that they are potentially a very dangerous and destructive force.''

That was seven years ago. While Mr. Gover has made clear he was sorry for his contempt citation, he also made clear his ideas about accountability are not exactly those most of us would admire in a public official.

And his comments about the Cobell plaintiffs are just outright wrong and mean spirited.

His tactic is to blame the messenger. It's the oldest political ploy and a way to dodge responsibility in the nation's capital. Mr. Gover is a pro at that.

That attitude alone should give Smithsonian officials second thoughts about the man they have hired to run the museum.

Clearly, selecting an individual with his poor performance as a manager at Interior and his complete lack of experience in museum management should have been fully vetted and discussed by the board.

On Sept. 17, the Smithsonian board of regents met in Washington. On their agenda were several ways the scandal-plagued institution could rebuild its image and trust among the public.

To many of us in Indian country, that's window dressing. The big decisions in Washington are still being made behind closed doors. And the representatives of Indian country are still left on the outside, looking in.

Elouise Cobell is a member of the Blackfeet Nation from Browning, Mont. She is serving her second term as a member of the board of trustees of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. She is also the lead plaintiff in the 11-year-old class action lawsuit, Cobell vs. Kempthorne, which challenges the federal government's admitted mismanagement of the Indian Trust.